This reflection was given at Morning Prayer at St. Mary’s Parish, Eugene, OR on the feast of St. Monica, August 27, 2020. The audio is available here.
“Behold, I am coming like a thief,” says the Lord to St. John. “Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready, so that he may not go naked and people see him exposed” (Rev 16:15).
And again: “If you are not watchful, I will come like a thief, and you will never know at what hour I will come upon you” (Rev 3:3).
How striking, that Our Blessed Lord now compares Himself to a thief! Let us take care to understand him rightly. The thief of souls, after all, is the Devil, who climbs into the sheepfold “to steal and slaughter and destroy” (Jn 10:10). He comes in the dead of night while the hired men are sleeping; they leave the sheep and run away at his approach (v. 12). But Our Lord, the Good Shepherd, comes so that His sheep “might have life and have it more abundantly.” He “lays down his life for the sheep” (v. 11).
It should surprise us that our Shepherd now tells us He is coming “like a thief.” Indeed, the whole point is to surprise us. St. Augustine says, “The Lord comes in two ways. At the end of the world he will come to all generally; likewise, he comes to each man at his own end, namely in death … and he wished both to be uncertain.” St. Jerome adds, “The Lord wished to set down an uncertain end … so that man would always be awaiting it.” “Stay awake! For at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Mt 24:42,44).
“Christ, therefore, compares Himself to a thief, not as regards the act of stealing, but as regards silence and secrecy” (Cornelius a Lapide).
But why does the Lord will to keep us in suspense? Why will “neither the day nor the hour” be revealed until the Son of Man appears (Mt 25:13)? Why will the rightful King of Heaven and Earth return at His Second Coming to claim His kingdom “like a thief” rather than the conqueror He Is?
One possible answer, proposed by the great Scripture commentator Cornelius a Lapide, is so “that the uncertainty may be a keen and never-failing stimulus to us in the practice of every virtue. For … if men knew when they were most likely to die, at that time only would they seek to repent, and they would make a show of diligence around that hour. Therefore, in order that they might be diligent, not only at that time, but continuously, throughout their lives … God caused them not to know the day or hour.”
This is true, and profitable to remember. “Time flies; keep death before your eyes.” As a wise old priest I know told me not long ago, “I don’t have any more time to waste.” Neither do I. Neither do you, no matter our age, our health, our plans for the future. In the same vein, a traditional Catholic prayer worthy of daily meditation reminds us:
“Remember, Christian soul,
that thou has this day, and every day of thy life:
God to glorify,
Jesus to imitate,
A soul to save,
A body to mortify,
Sins to repent of,
Virtues to acquire,
Hell to avoid,
Heaven to gain,
Eternity to prepare for,
Time to profit by,
Neighbors to edify,
The world to despise,
Devils to combat,
Passions to subdue,
Death, perhaps, to suffer,
Judgment to undergo.”
But something, perhaps, is missing from this sober interpretation. Let us consider one small detail, easily overlooked, from the Lord’s revelation to St. John: “Blessed is the one who watches and keeps his clothes ready.” Recall the parable we heard last week about the man who comes to the marriage feast without his wedding garment. This garment represents nothing other than charity, that garment which every Christian is to put on over all his other virtues and good works, which binds them all together.
We cannot enter eternal life if we are not clothed in charity. Therefore, the Lord reminds us again today of the urgent need not only to stay awake and keep watch “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12), but to remain in His love (Jn 15:9), dressed in the spotless white garment of salvation, ready for the summons to the wedding feast!
This, in fact, is the difference between the anxious fear of the servant, striving for perfection because he is afraid that his Lord will catch him in some fault and reject him when He comes, and the longing of the Bride for her Bridegroom, who seeks to make herself pure and spotless for her Beloved—not because she fears rejection, but because her love for Him spurs her on to nothing less.
She it is who cries out with such wild joy in the Canticle of Canticles: “The voice of my beloved! Behold, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, skipping over the hills. Behold, he stands behind our wall, looking through the windows, looking through the lattices!” (Cant 2:8-9).
And this is the voice of the Lord, who comes “like a thief,” peering in through her window in the dead of night: “Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come. For winter is now past, the rain is over and gone … Show me thy face, let thy voice sound in my ears: for thy voice is sweet, and thy face is beautiful” (Cant 2:10-11, 14).
Why does the Lord keep us in the dark? To spur us on to practice virtue and seek perfection, yes, but perhaps also to inspire in us a greater desire for His coming.
“At the end of life,” says St. John of the Cross, “we will be judged on love alone.”
Listen to the words of Saint Monica at the end of her earthly life. “Son,” she said to her dear Augustine, whose conversion she had won by many tears and long years of suffering, “as far as I am concerned, nothing in this life now gives me any pleasure. I do not know why I am still here, since I have no further hopes in this world. I did have one reason for wanting to live a little longer: to see you become a Catholic Christian before I died. God has lavished his gifts on me in that respect … so what am I doing here?” (Confessions, IX, 10)
In my short time here at St. Mary’s, I have met already several faithful, older people who have asked me the same question. Just five days after she posed it, Saint Monica passed from this world into the eternal life to come. Perhaps the Lord was waiting only for this last, most perfect sigh of the saintly mother’s heart: the realization that she wanted nothing now but Him alone.
“After telling about her death, her sorrowing son adds: We did not think that hers was a death which it was seemly to mark with repining, or tears, or lamentations, seeing that she died not sorrowfully … because we knew what her life had been, her faith unfeigned, her sure and certain hope.” (Roman Breviary at Matins, third lesson on the Feast of St. Monica)
Let us, then, dear friends of Christ, taking Saint Monica as our model, stay awake, and wait upon the Lord, clothed in the garment of charity and fired by love’s urgent longings, so that when He comes and knocks, at a day and hour we cannot now predict, we may be ready at once to open the door and go away with Him. “Truly, the LORD is waiting to be gracious to you; truly, he shall rise to show you mercy. For the LORD is a God of justice: blessed are all who wait for him!” (Isa 30:18)